Special Report
School & District Management

KIPP Principal Training Rooted in ‘Real-World’ Practice

By Arianna Prothero — January 21, 2015 5 min read
Elizabeth Valerio, a KIPP assistant principal, visits a 6th grade math class at KIPP Rise Academy in Newark, N.J. She is training to become the principal of one of the network's schools in St. Louis next fall.

KIPP, or the Knowledge Is Power Program, is known for its size—162 schools and 59,000 students nationally and growing—as well as its track record of getting solid test scores out of underprivileged urban and rural schoolchildren.

But a lesser-known, equally distinctive feature of the network is its principal-training programs. With the same focus and intensity that KIPP applies to expanding its schools and improving achievement, it has developed a comprehensive leadership-training program that has become sought after by other charter networks and regular school districts.

On a recent morning, a principal and teacher at Rise Academy—a KIPP charter school named for a Maya Angelou poem in this New Jersey city—are discussing the academic performance and personal struggles of a student. During the conversation, Principal David Branson pulls up a series of metrics on a large computer monitor mounted on the wall by his desk. Hovering his mouse over a set of numbers, he asks the teacher, “How concerned are we about this?” referring to metrics tracking grades, homework completion, and discipline.

Watching their exchange is Elizabeth Valerio, a KIPP principal in training. As the conversation moves from students to personnel, Ms. Valerio jots down observations in her notebook. After the meeting wraps up, Mr. Branson and Ms. Valerio spend nearly half an hour dissecting the discussion. Referring to her notes, Ms. Valerio peppers Mr. Branson with questions, and, in turn, Mr. Branson prods her on what she would have done differently in that discussion with the teacher and why.

It’s the first of several similarly styled conversations Ms. Valerio will have with Rise Academy staff members throughout the morning—all a part of her preparation to lead a new KIPP school next year in St. Louis.

Ms. Valerio is a Fisher Fellow—KIPP’s apprenticeship program for principals who will soon be opening their own schools through KIPP’s franchise-like system.

Not Hypothetical

Launched in 2000, the Fisher Fellowship was KIPP’s first training program. After being accepted into the selective program, often from KIPP’s assistant principal and teacher leader ranks, Fisher Fellows spend a year visiting schools of their choice across the country to see how schools manage everything from staff to discipline to curriculum.

Elizabeth Valerio, a KIPP assistant principal, talks to 6th grader Shihaab Metz at KIPP Rise Academy in Newark, N.J. She is training to become the principal of one of the network’s schools in St. Louis next fall.

“One thing that Rise is notoriously good at is data-driven instruction—so what that means is making sure that all of their instructional choices are rooted in data,” said Ms. Valerio. That is why she chose to spend a week shadowing Mr. Branson. “They’re also a really high-achieving school, and I knew I would be able to see really excellent teaching in an established school.”

In the summer, Fisher Fellows also attend a five-week workshop in Chicago and receive regular, one-on-one coaching with other experienced KIPP leaders—all aimed at preparing them to open and lead a school the following year. The program is not cheap. Fellows receive salaries and benefits, costing the KIPP foundation up to $150,000 per person.

A chunk of that money pays for sending fellows to schools across the national network and making sure the training is rooted in real-world practice, said David Levin, a KIPP co-founder. “We are not training folks for a hypothetical leadership job.”

Another important feature of KIPP’s training programs, he said, is that participants are always part of a cohort. “You’re not alone. That cohort experience is a big deal.”

Established principals can also join a cohort, and the KIPP Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports the KIPP franchise, offers several other ongoing professional-development opportunities, including two national retreats a year for its school leaders.

In 2005, the foundation expanded its school leadership-training offerings to a total of six programs, including ones aimed at new assistant principals, regional leaders in the network, and people selected to succeed a principal at an established school.

But even as KIPP offered more training to principals at all stages of their careers, one vexing issue remained: Retention rates for network principals who had founded schools were stuck at around 50 percent. That kicked off a kind of soul-searching initiative within the network.

KIPP surveyed its principals—current and past—to see what they felt they needed in the job and brought in David Maxfield of VitalSmarts, a corporate training- and leadership-development company, as a consultant. Through its research, KIPP identified four vital behaviors it believes successful school leaders possess: They distribute leadership responsibilities to others; they’re savvy goal-setters; they lean on support systems both inside and outside the school; and they make time to rest and recharge.

Minimizing Burnout

Teaching, supporting, and encouraging those behaviors has become a staple of KIPP’s training programs. That final trait, officially called “behavior four, renew to get stronger,” represents somewhat of a sea change for a mostly nonunionized organization and sector that has been heavily criticized for driving teachers and principals toward burnout.

Ms. Valerio listens to KIPP Rise Academy Principal David Branson. As part of her training, she has been spending time in KIPP schools around the country to observe and learn from other principals.

Seeing how Mr. Branson attempts to balance the extended school days KIPP is known for with the personal needs of his staff members was something Ms. Valerio was closely watching.

After codifying the four vital behaviors and imbuing the training system with them, KIPP’s retention rates started to climb. Seventy-eight percent of school founders remained in their positions in 2009, and that number grew to 82 percent by 2011, according to numbers provided by the KIPP Foundation.

KIPP’s training initiatives are not limited to leaders within the network. It also offers professional development for other charter and regular district school leaders.

With the help of a $50 million Investing in Innovation, or i3, grant from the federal government, KIPP developed an eight-monthlong leadership training program aimed at training district administrators on KIPP’s principal leadership development practices.

“Two of our principals have participated in the KIPP institute,” said Kelvin Adams, the superintendent in the St. Louis school district. “And when we have trainings that KIPP wants to participate in, they can.”

The training exchange is part of a unique partnership between KIPP and the St. Louis district that was hammered out last summer. As part of the deal, the district is providing some KIPP schools, including Ms. Valerio’s, with unused school buildings in exchange for incorporating KIPP students’ state test scores in the district’s achievement data.

That means once Ms. Valerio completes her fellowship and opens her school, there should be a buffet of ongoing professional-development opportunities available to her through both KIPP and the district. That opportunity for ongoing support, she said, was the reason she first joined KIPP as a teacher.

“I really wanted to grow as a teacher and I wasn’t receiving coaching at my current school,” Ms. Valerio said. The principal at a nearby KIPP school promised her that if she joined his team, she’d get coaching every week. “Once I heard that I was like, ‘When can I join?’”

Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2015 edition of Education Week as ‘Real World’ Prep for KIPP Principals

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